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Many of the native plants in New York have been pushed out of the city’s concrete expanses, but that’s not to say the boroughs don’t have a botanic profile. Artist Ellie Irons has spent three summers cultivating and creating pigments from the invasive plant species that have taken root in vacant lots and urban gardens.
She prefers the term “spontaneous plants” over “weeds” to refer to the dandelions, mugwort, black nightshade, smooth bedstraw, and other plants she’s spotted in her Bushwick neighborhood, as “we make the conditions that make these plants grow.” These include plants once ornamental, like the Oriental bittersweet vine from northeastern Asia, and others whose migratory trajectory is less clear, like the Asiatic dayflower from China first noted in the northeast of the United States in 1898. Irons doesn’t see the growth of these non-native plants in the city as entirely negative, as they’re flourishing where the original plants no longer can due to changes in the environment — and in this way keep the city green.
As part of this past weekend’s Bushwick Open Studios, she presented her newest stage of the Invasive Pigments project at the Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture (CSAA) at Silent Barn. Previously, she’s exhibited the project at Wave Hill in the Bronx and the Queens Botanical Garden. A small plot formerly devoted to vegetables is now hosting plants sprung from soil she collected in a neighborhood lot, species Irons cultivated in her studio and then transferred to the garden, and even some specimens from the new Superfund site on the Bushwick-Ridgewood border — a former chemical company area that has above-normal radioactivity levels.
“The whole point for me is the fact that these are almost all plants from somewhere else,” she told the small crowd at her demonstration of pigment-making on Sunday. These aren’t plants that you would have found back when Henry Hudson sailed into the New York harbor over 400 years ago. “I’m interested in the fact that we’ve changed our environment to such an extent,” she said.
There’s a long tradition of organic, fugitive pigments in art, especially in watercolors, which is the medium in which Irons uses the pigments made from the “unintentional plants.” With a background in both art and environmental science from at Scripps College and then an MFA at Hunter College, she’s merged an interest in ecology with visual art. At Bushwick Open Studios, she ground a rich, reddish-purple pigment from pokeweed berries, an ink some cite as being used on the Declaration of Independence. While native to the southeast of North America, it’s spread over the centuries across the country and even to Europe and Africa, where its toxicity to animals has been a problem.
Irons uses these pigments to paint map-portraits of species, and with the CSAA she will have a gradual harvest at the Bushwick-sourced garden, create pigments, and then work on art that will be exhibited in the CSAA gallery in Silent Barn this fall. She’s also curious to see what happens with these plants, usually left to fend for themselves in harsh conditions, when cared for (she’s had to do some reverse weeding in the garden, carefully removing and re-potting tomato plants sprouting from the remains of the vegetable garden), giving them the chance to “grow bigger, stronger, and more vibrant than anywhere else.” While most people might simply see the plants as weeds, they are part of the city’s biodiversity, the cartography of urban life.